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Understanding & Dealing With Sadness

Medically Reviewed and Edited by 
Olga Kyrychenko, Psychologist

When compared to happiness, sadness appears to be more understood by people of all cultures and ages. Using the same sources (Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and APA Dictionary of Psychology) which I used to define happiness, I was able to construct an definition of sadness. Sadness is characterized as a state of unhappiness that manifests in varying intensities, spanning from mild to extreme. Although the converging perspectives make sadness appear simple, the reality is quite the opposite.

We, as humans, have something called negativity bias: we tend to pay more attention to feelings we deem unpleasant. With such being linked to emotions like sadness, anger, and fear, our experience of these emotions is an intricate interplay of different factors. Recent research, drawing from social neuroscience and individual differences, delves into the multifaceted nature of sadness.

Research on sadness is extensive. Primarily, such studies focus on individuals dealing with psychological conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even conduct disorder. However, just like happiness, sadness is a basic emotion experienced by all. I was motivated to write this article because I recognize that whether you are suffering from a mental illness or not, you also experience sadness. We all need to know how to deal with sadness.

Hence, I want to share with you what I have discovered to thoroughly define what sadness is, how it differs from depression, and its types. Although you might already be well aware of the impacts of sadness, I know how frustrating it can be when you can only identify them but lack the proper understanding. To conclude, I will also share practical tips to alleviate your sadness.

What is Sadness?

To properly define sadness, I want you to recall an instance wherein you experienced losing something or someone important. You may also think of a time in which you did not meet the goal you set for yourself. Perhaps it was the departure of a close friend, the end of a cherished relationship, or even the failure to attain a goal you had set for yourself. These are examples of common scenarios in which the dominant emotion you might have felt is sadness. 

From a biological perspective, sadness may appear identical from one person to another considering the parts of the brain that are activated. Nonetheless, as I have previously cited, individual differences play a crucial role in shaping our emotional responses, so if these scenarios do not resonate as particularly sad for you, that is perfectly valid.

According to the Atlas of Emotions, “Sadness is triggered by a feeling of loss”. This definition of sadness may not sound accurate to you especially if like many, you have felt an unexplainable sadness after a (supposedly) joyous moment like gaining the means to live independently or achieving a long-desired promotion.

Here is a better insight: the “feeling of loss” in the definition of sadness does not always mean you did not – at times, it is a case of you did. You received your degree; your loss is your goal to graduate. You won a competition; your loss is your motivation to train. Therefore, I want you to think of sadness this way: after loss, sadness helps you “search for better future situations”.

Understanding Sadness

Before I enumerate and discuss the types of sadness, it is imperative that I share how exactly sadness functions. I have been reiterating that the way we experience it is unique – you can attribute that uniqueness to the following: 

1. Elicitation of Autonomic Responses and Endocrine Responses

Sadness has been linked to unhealthy rumination which has something to do with your autonomic nervous system (ANS). Concerning such, your dopamine and serotonin levels are related to sadness. In women, however, estrogen is also strongly linked to sadness highlighting individual differences between men and women.

2. Flexibility of Behavioral Responses to Reinforcing Stimuli

We now live in the digital world, thus sadness can also be traced in our behavior on the internet. A recent study investigated that children and adolescents tend to spend more time online as a response to the sadness they feel compared to adults who prefer to engage in physical situations. Such findings show individual differences across different ages.

Such behavioral responses may persist due to sadness.

3. Sadness is Motivating

Once you have a better understanding of sadness and you have learned not to move away from it but instead, manage your sadness, it can help you with decision-making. You may wonder how a decision driven by an emotion like sadness would be more objective than subjective, but even just the choice to deal with it is already objective enough as it is.

4. You can Communicate Using Sadness

Recently, Elmo from Sesame Street used X (formerly Twitter) to ask a simple but important question: How is everybody doing?

Responses to the post were mainly people expressing their negative emotions – among those is sadness. Such an act of “blowing off steam” can help you regulate your emotions.

5. Sadness is a Form of Social Bonding

Expressing your vulnerability to other people, in this case letting people know that you are sad, can strengthen your bond with people. This act shows that you trust people and in return, they are more likely to offer you their support because of that transparency.

6. Sadness Affects How You Store Memories

You are more likely to remember sad memories than any other memories. Thus, it may be hard for you to recall the positive ones because they might not even be stored in the first place. Techniques like mindfulness can help in those cases.

In relation to such, sadness also affects how you recall those memories and your cognitive evaluation of them.

Sadness vs. Depression

Sadness is an overall negative emotion, there’s no doubt about that. However, what I want you to understand is that despite the negativity surrounding it, feeling sad is not inherently bad. In fact, sadness can be healthy – this will be discussed in a separate part of this article.

Now, when does sadness become a matter of concern? Let the checklist below be your guide. I was able to come up with this list after consulting the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and studies regarding depression and sadness as a symptom of depression.

  • Sadness is persistent and lasts for the whole day almost every day
  • Sadness is accompanied by feelings of worthlessness
  • Sadness acts as a drive for self-harm and in some cases, suicidal ideations
  • Sadness manifests more intensely when recalling sad memories
  • Sadness becomes unmanageable leading to withdrawal from usual activities

As I have previously mentioned, the way we feel sad and the intensity of our sadness vary because each one of us is a different person. The key points are the experiences of people suffering from depressive disorders but, you have to understand that depression is not just intense sadness alone. Sadness also does not lead to depression all the time, especially in cases of significant loss that results in grief.

If you suspect that you have depression based on the sadness you are currently experiencing, you are encouraged to seek professional help. You may visit your local clinic or connect with a online psychologist specializing in treating depression through our suggested platforms.

Types of Sadness

As we move towards the discussion of the types of sadness, I would like to cite the Atlas of Emotions again. The states of sadness they have given are easy to use as a reference to give a simple but comprehensive elaboration of sadness. I am also going to use hypothetical situations to explain some of the types instead of just sticking to their conceptual definitions.

  • Disappointment: The least intense type of sadness. The feeling of disappointment usually stems from the discrepancy between your expectations and the outcome. If you ever feel sad when the thing you want from a menu is unavailable, always remember that your feeling is valid – it is normal to be disappointed.
  • Discouragement: If you are someone who likes to play video games but when the hard part comes you become sad and eventually lose the motivation to play, then you are discouraged. It serves as a response to repeated failures and, again, is a normal emotional state.
  • Distraughtness: The feeling you have when you wake up in the morning after getting barely any sleep – perhaps it makes you mismatch your socks or forget to put sugar in your coffee. It is normal to feel sad when you feel like there are things you could have prevented if only you were thinking clearly.

As we move toward the more intense types of sadness, I will not be using hypothetical situations to explain them anymore so that I do not potentially trigger you. Instead, using the explanations of how sadness functions, I will further elaborate on their conceptual definitions.

  • Resignation: Should disappointment, discouragement, and distraughtness remain, one may experience resignation. If one begins to feel those types of sadness in a lot of things they do in their daily life, it could be because they are not able to practice behaviors that regulate or compartmentalize sadness.
  • Helplessness: It is important to have support in times of helplessness whether it be from one’s family or peers. Even if the realization that dealing with a situation will not get easier in the long run, there is still help to be received.
  • Hopelessness: If one continues to treat sadness as something that hinders them rather than something potentially motivating, they may start to feel as if nothing good will happen.
  • Misery: The point where sadness becomes so intense that the latter types call for concern. Perhaps this is where the more uncontrollable function of sadness—the biological one—becomes evidently in action.
  • Despair: This state may occur when sadness is not communicated. A lot of times, when one starts to feel that a situation cannot turn for the better, it could be because they do not trust themselves or others to do things that may improve their circumstances.
  • Grief: A significant loss causes grief. In some cases, it develops into a mental disorder depending on how greatly it has affected one’s daily life after the loss. Perhaps even recalling the positive memories related to the loss elicits sadness.
  • Sorrow: This type of sadness is hallmarked by prolonged distress over loss. Compared to grief, sorrow is more impactful in the sense that people experiencing such seldom recover. We could link this to behavioral response – in this case, the inflexibility of such responses.
  • Anguish: The most intense feeling of sadness. It can be considered somewhat unexplainable until you experience it for yourself. The suffering that comes with anguish is attributed to every function that sadness has.

Consequences of Sadness

It can be difficult to deal with the demands of everyday living when you are sad. In this section of the article, I want to discuss the impacts of sadness. At the same time, I will be providing techniques for dealing with overwhelming sadness should it come your way – prevention can be found in the latter part of the article.

Situation: I feel sad, should I let myself feel sad or should I pretend that I’m okay?

Solution: Do not suppress sadness because it may lead to depression and social anxiety. Instead, try to have time for yourself or surround yourself with the people you trust the most.

Situation: All I can think about is my sadness, it’s stressing me out.

Solution: Try to find distractions that work: revisit hobbies, create a new routine and religiously follow it, and reorganize your spaces (i.e., room, office cubicle, living room). You can also try to reflect more on why you are sad instead of merely thinking about the feeling itself.

Situation: I tried to follow my friend’s advice about sadness but it didn’t work for me.

Solution: Understand that what may work for others may not work for you. Assess your friend’s advice: does it lean towards avoiding things that cause your sadness? If so, you can try to face such problems head-on and come up with workarounds.

The solutions I have provided are, of course, not perfect but because those are backed up by evidence from research, they provide a good start on your personalized plan to deal with sadness. Remember: your sadness may be yours alone, but there are others who are willing to share the burden.

Can Sadness Be Healthy?

Yes, sadness can be healthy. I mentioned that sadness can serve as a motivation – that is just one of the many ways in which sadness can be beneficial for you. Besides finding joy through self-discovery and healing during times of sadness, research has shown that sadness drives you to have a greater sense of responsibility

Furthermore, a study highlighted that youth who grew up with helicopter parents experienced more distress as they approached young adulthood. The idea is that helicopter parents are too involved in their children’s lives that such children do not experience failures and subsequently, do not feel sadness. Thus, if you have experience with such parents, it is more likely that because you never felt sad, you feel it more intensely which lowers your well-being almost immediately.

Similarly, from the human evolution viewpoint, we feel sad because it helps us preserve ourselves – it is part of our survival instincts. Feeling sad and expressing that sadness allows others to be of help to you. If there is no one to support you when you are feeling sad, normally what happens is that your cognition prepares you to deal with what may come and help with either prevention or coping from the negative outcome.

5 Tips to Improve Mental Health and Be Less Sad

Although I continuously advocated throughout the article that sadness is normal and it is okay to feel sad, I also recognize that there are times when you really cannot afford to be sad. From simple daily habits to mindset shifts, the practical strategies I am about to share are designed to prevent you from being sad.

  • Learn how to use technology to improve your well-being
  • Always seek to improve your communication skills for positive social interactions
  • Be more optimistic: do not always expect the worst, always hope for the best
  • Try mindfulness techniques and see which works best for you
  • Pick up reading self-help books as a hobby

The most important takeaway from this article that I want you to always remember is that you have to learn how to embrace sadness. Perhaps the best way to deal with sadness is to face it head-on so that it does not grow into something that can consume you. I hope that upon reaching this conclusion, you have already learned holistic approaches to sadness relief that suit your own needs.

If your sadness leads to a constant feeling of duress, I urge you to visit your local ER or consult an emergency hotline. For long term care and maintenance, read my guide on the best online depression therapy services, or my Brightside review – a platform specializing in treating depression through a combination of talk therapy and medication.